Bruce Jackson is a Senior Knowledge Exchange Manager at the ESRC, and has worked for the council for seven years. His current role is focused on ensuring researchers have the tools needed to undertake excellent social science and on supporting the ESRC’s partnership and engagement activities, including its engagement with the retail sector.
My 40th is fast approaching and, lit by the glare of my iPad while shopping for new skateboards, I notice yet another grey hair reflected back from the screen. A combination of early mornings and late nights brought about by toddlers and flexible working has meant that my online activity this night has also included a quick search for ‘Just for Men’ (other hair-colour products are available!). So how did my journey finish? Well, I’m still grey but after an online journey encompassing various skate shops comparing prices I went to my local skate shop and bought my board. So what does this tell us on this occasion, apart from the mid-life crisis?
First, as is shown by Professor Cathy Hart’s research into understanding people’s experience of town centres and high streets (PDF), funded under the £2.5 million ESRC Retail Sector Initiative, shoppers have not deserted the high street. Product-related searches are the main online activity prior to town centre visits, and, crucially, the ‘experiential’ (or intangible) touch-points of the customer journey which engage the customer’s sensations, feelings and emotions deter consumers from resorting to online alternatives. In my case the skate shop provided something over and above what I could find online – face-to-face advice, product personalisation, and the shop’s indoor skate park that allowed me to have a skate on my new board. The skate park is a great example of experiential shopping – it helps draw in customers, supports community engagement and helps build the online brand by giving the shop an authenticity valued by the skater community (run by skaters for skaters).
Second, the vulnerability of retail centres to the impact of growing internet sales is affected by the various ways that consumers use the internet. Working in partnership with the Local Data Company, Professor Alex Singleton (University of Liverpool) at the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) has classified the ‘e-resilience’ of every neighbourhood in England according to a variety of characteristics that might influence use of the internet for consumer purposes, including education; employment; engagement with new innovations in ICT; and locally available broadband infrastructure. The results of his work can be accessed through the highly interactive data website. I’m pleased to note that the classifications seem to hold true for myself and my online search, in that I live in an area of Swindon predominantly populated by e-professionals and students who display very high levels of engagement with internet applications across all measures.
Interestingly one of the overarching conclusions of Professor Singleton’s research on ‘e-resilience’ is that both large, attractive centres offering ‘experiential’ shopping, and the smaller high streets providing everyday convenience are more likely to be ‘e-resilient’ than the rural and suburban centres caught in the middle. And this finding largely ties into my own online and high street engagement: browsing online in the evening for skateboards and clothes (in a desperate attempt to stay young); occasionally going to Bristol with the family for a day out; and shopping locally for convenience, or where the retailer has something over and above what I can find online.
If you want a more scientific review of the factors shaping our high streets, Professor Neil Wrigley’s ESRC-funded evidence review for the Future High Street Forum provides a thorough assessment of the forces of change that have affected the performance and evolution of the Great British town centre and high street (PDF).
So what can we do to help support our local town centres and high streets? Professor Cathy Parker’s ESRC-funded High Street 2020 project with the Institute for Pace Management found 201 factors that influence performance in retail centres – including the quality and range of shops and goods, car parking and retailer offer. However, of those 201 identified, only 25 were identified as sufficiently important and controllable at a local level to be classified as factors local stakeholders should ‘get on with addressing’. These include:
- Ensuring the centre is open at times when customers in the catchment area want to visit
- Improving the quality of the visual appearance of the centre
- Ensuring the right type and quality of retailers are represented
- Having a common vision for the centre and some leadership
- Providing a consistent and suitable experience.
So what does this blog tell us? Well, first it’s clear that there are multiple factors affecting the vitality and vibrancy of town centres and high streets. Second, there is a wealth of evidence, data and knowledge both within and outside academia that can help us support our centres and high streets in a more evidenced and robust way. And finally, that the speed of change – whether that be the evolution of our high streets or the greys on my head – seems to be getting exponentially greater.
This blog was written ahead of the Future High Streets Summit on 30-31 March 2016, which aims to engage and inspire all those with a passion for creating a positive, successful future high street.